FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE PRESENT
“The remains of ancient times in the heart of the Lakes”
Nestled in the valleys, mountain ranges, and on the coastlines of Cumbria are ancient artefacts, giving us a glimpse into the lives of past peoples. These artefacts are pieces of archaeology. The Armitt holds over 1000 of such archaeological items in its collection ranging from prehistoric items to objects from the Roman occupation of Ambleside from the first to the fourth centuries.
The Armitt’s collections and library are available for research and study. Please contact us for further information, or to book a research session on: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 015394 31212.
LANGDALE IN THE NEOLITHIC PERIOD
Long before Great Langdale became the heart of the industrial Lake District in the nineteenth century, the valley was the site of stone age axe factories. During the Neolithic period (lasting from approximately 10,000 BCE to 4,500 BCE), stone axes were among the most important tools, as people first began to clear land to cultivate crops. They were also high-value items that could be traded and exchanged.
The Langdale stone axes (termed as Group VI stone axes) were manufactured from fine-grained greenstone volcanic tuff, extracted from a narrow vein formed by a geological fault from Scafell in the west to Glaramara and the Langdale Pikes in the east. Most of the flaking sites in Langdale date from around 4,000 to 3,000 BCE, where chunks of rock were ‘flaked’ off the mountainsides. One of the highest flaking sites was found at 3,000 ft on Scafell Pike.
The most productive sites appear to have been found in the Pike O’Stickle area, where the screes beneath the factory sites are littered with unfinished axes. These were then taken to coastal settlements of limestone areas to the East of the Lake District to be ‘polished’. This process involved grinding the surface of the stones with fine sand until they were smooth, which improved the axes mechanical strength and decreased friction when axes were used against wood.
It is clear some axes travelled long distances, as axe heads from Great Langdale make up over a quarter of all those found in the country. Most finished axe heads were found in Lincolnshire and the East Midlands, but many were found as far away as Poland.
Evidence of the Neolithic Langdale axe industry was first suggested by chance discoveries in the 1930s, with more systemic investigations undertaken in the 40s and 50s. Clare Fell, a local archaeologist, was one of the first scholars to demonstrate the scale of the activity in Langdale, using the word ‘factory’ to describe it.
AMBLESIDE ROMAN FORT
The first version of the Roman fort in Ambleside was likely built in the late first century during the governorship of Julius Agricola, from 80-85 CE. It was constructed from timber, so very little remains and not much is known about this first version. The second phase fort was built in the second century, largely of stone with timber barracks. These remains are visible in Borrans Park, Ambleside, at the northernmost tip of Lake Windermere.
Ambleside may seem like a strange location for a Roman fort, but the fort occupied a strategic position at the meeting of the Rothay and Brathay valleys, giving control over routes to the Kirkstone and Hardknott passes. The easy crossing of the Rothay River (then much closer to the lake and the fort) may also have been a factor.
After the Romans left Britain, the fort was abandoned. The site has been described as early as 1588 by the antiquarian William Camden, as “the carcase…of an ancient city, with large ruins of walls; and without the walls, the rubbish of old buildings in many places…” Decades after Camden’s visit it was owned by the Braithwaite family, who frequently used it as a quarry and repurposed much of the remaining stone. This continued until the early twentieth century, by which time there were very few visible remains of the fort.
In 1911, a local builder named Mr Pattinson was preparing to build boarding houses over the fort, but he was persuaded to cease construction by educationalists WF Rawnsley and Gordon Graham Wordsworth. An Ambleside Committee was formed to purchase the site, with support from Professor W.G. Collingwood (former secretary to John Ruskin), the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS), the Manchester Guardian and many local people. By 20th May 1913, they had successfully raised £4,000 and the site was gifted to the National Trust.
The CWAAS Research Committee, with supervision from the archaeologist RG Collingwood (son of Professor Collingwood), began excavating the site in 1913, and it was agreed shortly afterwards that any artefacts found would be donated to The Armitt collection. There were four seasons of work from 1913 to 1920. Much of our collection consists of building material and pottery, but there are also pieces of leatherwork, metal items, and lead bullets among others that have been recovered from the site of the fort.
Further excavations were carried out in the 1960s when the most unique archaeological item in The Armitt’s collection was found. This is a gravestone recording the deaths of two soldiers, which was found to the east of the fort. One of the soldiers, Flavius Romanus, was killed inside the fort, possibly in battle, and research from 2022 is ongoing about this episode in Ambleside’s history.